Sunday, January 10, 2010

THE LEGEND OF CORDES JUNCTION (Version 1; Part 1)

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In the Blog Bit ‘Mystery Christmas Tree In The Middle-Of-Nowhere, Arizona’ I mentioned a short story I had written, primarily for my Pa, back in 1994. My friend Mr. Paulboy
(F-FFF #6) urged me to post it and so that’s what I’m doing.

When I went to write the piece, I thought of two different angles from which I could approach it, and being unable to decide which way was best, I wrote the story twice. The second version, while being slightly longer and having a somewhat more complex storyline, is actually written more stylistically terse. This first take on it is simpler, but there’s something to be said for directness and simplicity, I suppose.

Originally, I couldn’t decide which of the two versions of the story I liked better, but I think I leaned slightly toward the second. At any rate, the second version is the one I entered into a 1994 Arizona Short Story contest. That was the only time I ever submitted any of my writing to a competition. The story didn’t get so much as an Honorable Mention. I didn’t even receive a certificate suitable for framing that said “Go To Hell.” This may be an indication of the story’s quality.

Having now reread the first version of the story for the first time in many years, and having quickly skimmed over the second, I think I now prefer the first. That’s me, totally decisive; mind like a steel trap. It may well be that neither version is any good, although my Pa liked them both, and that’s good enough for me. Here’s the first attempt I made to tell this story:

THE LEGEND OF CORDES JUNCTION (Version 1)
by Stephen T. McCarthy

Who was the mysterious man I met six summers ago at the edge of the highway in Cordes Junction? Did the story really happen the way he said it did? Or did it even happen at all? And what became of him and his plan to build a monument to the memory of the Legend of Cordes Junction? These questions have been tickling my mind ever since a recent business trip took me through Cordes Junction, Arizona, and I found the place to be essentially unchanged. Even more nagging than the questions, however, has been the compulsion I’ve felt to put the story on paper exactly as the old man related it to me. I do it now in the hope of setting myself free from it, or it from me.

In 1988, the summer vacation plan that my wife Claire and I had carefully constructed suddenly changed its form. I had been teaching English at a Tucson middle school and my wages had not afforded my family a real vacation for several years.

While I had been at school teaching other parents’ children why they should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, Claire was at home teaching our own children the far more important lessons of how they could be and why they should be decent human beings. Many times I’ve paid both silent and audible tribute to my wife for her willingness to dedicate herself to that endeavor. I confess here and now that I often envied the superiority of purpose her life had known during that time.

Our sons were six and seven years old in 1988. Jonathon was the byproduct of the affection Claire and I had for each other, and Marcus we had adopted when he was two. We thought of our adoption of Marcus as our gift to society; and his adopting of us was our gift from God.

Our elaborate family getaway was to take us north to the Grand Canyon, then through parts of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Three weeks before the date of departure, bad things happened. At the corner of Campbell Avenue and Holladay Street our car’s engine inexplicably caught fire and expired. We had been unprepared for the expense of purchasing a new used car. Then Claire’s mother slipped on her front porch while bringing in groceries and suffered a sprained ankle, dislocated hip, and broken wrist.

I insisted on postponing our vacation for another year, but Claire insisted on staying with her mother while I took the boys to the Grand Canyon for a down-scaled, male-bonding camping excursion. Claire’s insistence ultimately won, and I dug out the tent and sleeping bags.

I had hoped to get an early start but we were delayed by the myriad setbacks that you with small children know too well, and those of you who have never had children can’t even begin to imagine. Eventually we got out of the driveway and I went west on Speedway Boulevard.

We left under a cloudless, halcyon canopy of powder blue sky, but within an hour I began to detect a slight shimmering. It was going to be one of those Arizona summer days that would burst the 100 degree mark well before noon.

Shortly before we reached the Interstate Ten on-ramp, Marcus sighted a city tree trimmer working from his cherry-picker. This regrettable event inspired the boys to begin singing what would torture me for the next few days as the trip’s official theme song:

“George, George, George of the jungle,
friend to you and me;
Watch out for that…
TREE!”

The boys developed their harmonizing while I concentrated on the road, and the delicious steak dinner that waited at the end of it. A fellow academician had recommended a steak house in Williams. Our funds were limited, but I figured we could afford one good meal before settling down to three days of charred hot dogs and blackened marshmallows alfresco. So, I had promised the boys – and especially myself – a properly cooked porterhouse at the end of our first day.

“George, George, George of the jungle,
friend to you and me;
Watch out for that…
TREE!”

Even when they are well behaved – as Jonathon and Marcus were – all children possess a certain kinetic quality. It’s like the constant flitting of a fly in one’s peripheral vision that will cause even the most calm and even-tempered adult to get jittery. I found myself shifting uneasily behind the wheel when, just outside of Phoenix, they started the “Why? Game.” The idea is that they pose a question to the adult and then follow every answer with “Why?”

“Dad, why do people live in Phoenix?”

“Because they like Phoenix.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s warm.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s in the desert.”

“Why?”

All parents hate the “Why? Game.” Why? Because it makes them nervous. Why? Because it forces them to face the fact that there is so much they don’t know and so little that they do. Also, it’s simply an annoying game, especially when one is driving through the heat of the day and each mile brings him closer to the pitching of a tent.

Forty-five minutes north of Phoenix, the song began to change:

“George, George, George of the jungle,
he is just like me;
we both gotta…
PEE!”

Four choruses of this and then a new verse was added; something about watering a tree.

“Do you boys need to make a quick pit stop?” I inquired. When they said they did, I resisted the temptation to counter with “Why?”

Ten minutes later, I pulled off Interstate Seventeen where it meets Highway Sixty-Nine; Cordes Junction it’s called. Nothing but a couple of gas stations and mom and pop establishments; a wide spot in the road serving as an outpost for weary travelers such as we.

I bought a cold soda pop, acquired a restroom key from the convenience store clerk, and sent the boys off to take care of business.

As I was standing there waiting for my sons and absent-mindedly watching the eighteen-wheeled trucks zinging by on the highway, the old man gradually materialized in my vision. Beside him sat an inordinately attentive dog that appeared to be part wolf. Its eyes seemed to somehow reflect a human-like intelligence. A small cook-pot and a hand-lettered sign lay at the old man’s feet as small dust funnel clouds chased around him. He stood motionless and unblinking in the whiteness of the Arizona sun. He didn’t appear to be down-on-his-luck exactly, yet he had the look of one who has been unable to dodge the serrated edge of life. Even from a distance I perceived a sadness and honesty emanating from his burnt brown eyes.

I had assumed his sign begged a ride from passing cars, but as I was drawn closer I read that I was mistaken:

Monument Donations Accepted.
The Legend Of Cordes Junction.
Inquire Here.

[Continued below in Part 2.]
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